Tuesday, September 13, 2016

A Librarian's Reflection on Writing for Academic Publication

Post by Helen Fallon, Deputy Librarian, Maynooth University.

Twenty-five years ago, I was an early-career librarian grappling with writing about my experiences as a VSO Lecturer/Librarian in Sierra Leone. I knew it was important, both personally and professionally, to create a record of library education in that specific time and place, before so much was destroyed by civil war. Returning to DCU from my two-year career break, I was encouraged to write about the experience by the Library Director Alan MacDougall and his wife Jennifer; she had grown up in Ghana and had a personal interest in libraries in West Africa. At that time few Irish librarians were publishing; those that were tended to be at senior levels. There was no expectation to publish and my writing - as I imagine was and is the case for most librarians who are writing - was carried out outside of work. Alan and Jennifer’s encouragement gave me the courage to send my article to An Leabharlann. Seeing the article in print was really thrilling.  I realised that I didn’t need to be a senior librarian to publish: I just needed to be committed to putting the time and effort into writing and through the process learn and develop my skills.
Quite a number of years and professional experience-based articles later, in publications such as An Leabharlann: The Irish Library, SCONUL Focus and Adults Learning, I was fortunate to attend a writing workshop at Maynooth University (MU) facilitated by Dr Rowena Murray, author of a number of books on academic writing. She encouraged me to make the leap from writing practice to research-based articles for peer-reviewed journals. Initially I worried that I wouldn’t have the knowledge of research methods or the data to do this. I realised from talking to other people who were writing, and from reading, that I could use my practice as the basis of research articles. So, having run a workshop for librarians who aspired to publish in 2007, I surveyed the group of 14 one year later to see what impact, if any, attending the workshop had on their writing habits and outputs. This was the research I used as the basis of my article. I also did a literature review, being careful to be selective rather than compressive, in what I included, as this is something that I could very easily get bogged down in. While I mentioned the many useful books and articles on academic writing the focus of my literature was on what had been published by and about librarians as academic authors. I included a case study based on the actual workshop.  So I had three main elements - literature review, case study and survey results. After the article was published in Library Review- following a peer review process (which wasn’t as daunting as I’d imagined) ,I felt more confident that I could write research articles  based primarily on my day-to-day practice. This was a real breakthrough for me. I have always had demanding jobs (which I love) so I write at home – it’s just after seven a.m. as I type this - on the PC I won from Interleaf for guessing the number of jelly beans in a jar at last year’s Academic and Special Libraries conference!  
As my confidence grew, I decided to write about library-related issues for discipline as well as library-specific journals. This was influenced by interactions with lecturers. My/our  best interactions/ideas/writing relationships frequently came from informal coffee/lunch conversations. I realised that while many lecturers are expert in their discipline, frequently they are not as skilled at effectively sourcing information relating to their discipline.  Librarians have valuable knowledge of a wide range of information and discipline-related topics - information literacy, open access, maximising research visibility, collection development, reading lists, bibliometrics - which are of concern to academic staff, sometimes from a different perspective. Sharing perspectives and knowledge is really very exciting and a way of creating new knowledge and ideas. Librarians need to publish in the journals academic staff publish in and write with academic staff. Writing with a lecturer, we wrote an article on integrating archives into the undergraduate curriculum on the BA in Community Studies at Maynooth University. I think we both learned a lot from the process.
I was conscious that there were no formal supports for librarians who wished to write for publication. I was also conscious of the many false starts I had made, from the number of writing projects commenced and never finished; mostly because I didn’t have any real sense of audience and purpose and target journal. In 2007, with the support of Maynooth University Library, I began running workshops for librarians on writing for publication. These have become an annual event  - and sometimes more frequent depending on demand. At this point, I’ve presented workshops to librarians, postgraduates, researchers, academic staff and practitioners across a range of disciplines in Ireland, the U.K. and Malaysia. Frequently after attending a workshop people are fired up with the desire to write, but it can be difficult to sustain this energy and enthusiasm to continue writing alone over a period and frequently outside of working hours. In order to encourage participants to continue writing I developed an academic writing blog with links to resources, details of publishing opportunities, and insights from librarians who are publishing and journal editors. I wrote up the elements of the workshop as an article for SCONUL Focus so anyone could follow the processes in getting from the ideas stage to publication, if unable to attend the workshop.
We’re developing a culture of writing for publication among the Irish library community. This is evident from the article by Terry O’Brien and Kieran Cronin, published in The New Review of Academic Librarianship. I’m the editor of the 2016 themed issue of NRAL, where Irish and international authors share their research and experience on the theme Librarian as Communicator. That’s been a very exciting process and worthy of its own blog post. That’s for another day. For now I have to log off and get ready for work.

Helen Fallon

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